Heavy gusts of wind are relentlessly battering the landscape. Trees and shrubs are blown back and forth for hours. Masses of camel thorn and white-thorn acacia pods clatter to the ground. Countless green leaves on various trees are no match for the force of the wind, get ripped off and swept away. Several metres above the ground an almost white nest dangles from a thin, thorny branch of a buffalo-thorn (Ziziphus mucronata).

The Cape penduline tit’s nest
The Cape Penduline Tit uses one foot to open the entrance to the nest, which is hidden behind a trapdoor above the false entrance. The nest is not only used for breeding but at night serves as a shelter for the whole family. An adult Cape Penduline Tit measures less than 10 cm from the tip of the tail to the tip of the bill and weighs in at 7.5 grams.

The nest is some 15 cm high, with a width and depth of about 9 cm. It consists of soft plant material which looks like cotton wool. Crouched inside are three Cape Penduline Tit (Anthoscopus minutus) chicks, measuring just a few centimetres and weighing less than seven grams, but they are almost fully fledged. Cape Penduline Tits are among the smallest birds in southern Africa. In sheep farming areas they build their soft, bag-like nests with sheep’s wool. It takes 20 to 35 days to finish the elaborate construction.

The Cape penduline tit’s nest
A Cape Penduline Tit brings food for the chicks. This bird species feeds on insects, their larvae and eggs, as well as spiders and small fruit.

The wind throws the pendulous nest back and forth, sometimes it is almost upside-down. But the parents have used sticky spider web to firmly attach it to the thin branch. A truly special feature, however, is a crafty construction to protect the adult birds, eggs and chicks inside the nest by leading potential enemies to a false “entrance”. On one side above the pouch-shaped, almost solid lower part of the nest there is a notch with a “roof” over it which looks like an entrance. But it does not lead into the nest – only into a small empty chamber. The real entrance is right on top of the false one. The “roof” is a trapdoor which closes as soon as a tit has entered or left the nest.

Before entering the nest the bird has to open the entrance spout with one foot. When leaving the nest the bird pushes through the trapdoor which immediately closes shut again. During a storm the chicks probably cling to the fibrous floor of the nest. Despite the strong wind the adult birds and the fledglings of the previous year continued to bring food to the nest. Tiny as they are they seemed to make it into the tree quite effortlessly and landed on the nest. After a little while they climbed to the top, opened the entrance and disappeared into the nest to feed the chicks. Shortly afterwards they reappeared, briefly held onto the nest and flew off again.

The soft but sturdy nest is not only built for raising the chicks. After the breeding season it also shelters the whole family. Sometimes more than ten Cape penduline tits spend a night tightly packed together in the safety of their nest. People like to use these nests for decoration purposes, but it is important to refrain from taking them from the trees so that the tiny birds can seek shelter there throughout the year.

Author: Dirk Heinrich

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